- POSTED: 10 Jan 2014 03:14
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Governor Chris Christie's US presidential ambitions ran into a jam on Thursday, when he was forced to admit his staff had lied to him about their role in blocking commuter traffic on a major bridge.
NEW YORK: Governor Chris Christie's US presidential ambitions ran into a jam on Thursday, when he was forced to admit his staff had lied to him about their role in blocking commuter traffic on a major bridge.
The New Jersey leader, a larger-than-life Republican widely seen as a frontrunner for his party's 2016 presidential nomination, said he had been "embarrassed and humiliated" by the alleged dirty tricks.
In news conference that lasted almost two hours, Christie repeatedly apologised for his office's connection to the shutting down of local feeder lanes on the George Washington Bridge in September.
The lane closures caused massive traffic disruption for four days in the New Jersey town of Fort Lee, allegedly to punish the local mayor, who failed to endorse Christie's successful re-election bid.
Christie insisted he had been unaware of any political motive behind the lane closures until the release of emails from his aides on Wednesday, and moved quickly to sack a senior assistant.
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution," Christie told reporters. "I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team.
"I've terminated the employment of Bridget Kelly, effective immediately. I terminated her employment because she lied to me," he added, referring to his deputy chief of staff.
At times chastened, at times showing signs of his formerly bombastic style, Christie branded Kelly as "stupid" and "deceitful" for her role in an apparent act of petty political retribution.
With his office bracing for an investigation into the scandal by the US attorney in New Jersey, Christie fell back on the blunt stance that has won him admirers in US politics beyond his regional fiefdom.
"I have absolutely nothing to hide," he said, adding that he will instruct staff to "cooperate and answer questions."
Christie said he would go to Fort Lee to apologise "face to face" to its Democratic mayor Mark Sokolich, who apparently drew the wrath of Christie aides over his refusal to back the governor last year.
Christie said he felt "blindsided" on Wednesday when he learned of the communications between Kelly and a top Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, David Wildstein.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote to Wildstein, a high school acquaintance of Christie, on August 13.
"Got it," Wildstein replied.
The Fort Lee mayor was not advised the lanes would be closed for what was said to be part of a traffic study.
Then on September 10, Wildstein texted Kelly: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?"
"No," she answered.
"I feel badly about the kids," Wildstein replied, referring to students stuck for hours on buses in the snarled traffic.
"They are the children of Buono voters," she texted back, referring to Christie's Democratic rival in the governor's race, Barbara Buono.
Wildstein resigned from his Port Authority post in December, and Christie said he has not spoken with him since before November's election, when he was returned to office for a second term.
Christie also ordered his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien to step down from running to lead New Jersey's Republican Party.
He slammed his longtime aide's "callous indifference" for his tone in communications regarding the scandal that has come to be known as "Bridgegate."
The brouhaha has much of New Jersey fuming, and politics watchers wondering whether the Republican Party has lost a major contender for the White House in the post-Obama era.
Widely-read New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait went so far as to say the bridge-to-nowhere scandal "will probably destroy Christie's chances in 2016."
"I've been doing a lot of soul searching," Christie admitted.
But he reminded reporters that the election was still 34 months away, and he refused to say whether the scandal would affect his decision on a presidential run.
"I am not preoccupied with that job. I'm pre-occupied with this one."
Polls have repeatedly shown Christie as the 2016 Republican front-runner, often deadlocked with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the leading likely Democratic contender.